The Virginia Marine Resources Commission postponed until May 14 any action on a permit needed for a controversial 1,500-acre reservoir after its staff joined scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in recommending against the project because of its potential impact on American shad.
Hundreds of opponents filled a school auditorium April 22 urging the commission to reject a permit that would allow up to 75 million gallons a day to be drawn from a critical shad spawning area in the Mattaponi River to fill the proposed King William Reservoir.
At the same time, officials from Newport News—who have been planning the reservoir for more than a decade—insisted that the approval of the project was essential to secure a long-term water supply for their region.
“There will come a day, if we don’t get this permit, that the water will not be there when we need it, and 600,000 people will want to know why,” Newport News Mayor Joe Frank told the commission. He was joined by mayors from neighboring jurisdictions, and business leaders.
Newport News officials, citing their own studies, dispute claims that the intake would have a significant impact on the shad population, but nonetheless offered to shut down the intake for two months during the spawning season.
The commission heard 8 hours of presentations and public comments—with dozens more people wishing to speak—before recessing the hearing until May 14, when it will resume at 9:30 a.m. at the commission’s office in Newport News.
The debate was the latest chapter in the city’s decade-old quest to build the reservoir, which is strongly opposed by environmental groups and residents in rural King William County, where it would be built.
Besides the intake in the Mattaponi River, the reservoir would drown 430 acres of wetlands—the most ever allowed in the region since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. It would also affect scores of Native American archaeological sites.
Because of its impacts, the project needs approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps’ Norfolk District initially recommended rejecting the project, saying the region’s future need for water was too uncertain to justify the environmental impacts of the project.
But before leaving office, former Gov. Jim Gilmore requested a review by the Corps’ North Atlantic Division, which last fall agreed that the city’s need for water was valid. The North Atlantic Division indicated it would approve the project if the city first secured all necessary state approvals.
That made the decision by the VMRC, which must issue a permit for the water intake on the Mattaponi, critical for the project.
But the commission’s staff echoed concerns raised by VIMS scientists that the proposed intake was in the middle of prime shad spawning and nursery habitat, and that thousands of shad eggs and larvae could be killed as they were dragged across the intake’s 12 underwater screens, each of which are 7 feet in diameter.
Shad, anadromous fish that spawn in freshwater rivers but live most of their lives in the ocean, are protected throughout the Bay by a fishing moratorium, and shad fishing is being phased out along the Atlantic Coast to help depleted populations rebuild.
Restoration of the shad population, which was once the Chesapeake’s largest commercial fishery, has been a priority of the Bay Program, with the Bay states annually stocking millions of hatchery-reared fish in tributaries throughout the watershed as part of an effort to rebuild a self-sustaining population.
Concern about the intake was heightened because the Mattaponi is the main source of shad for the York River, the state’s most productive river for the fish. “This places the proposed raw water intake in essentially the most sensitive area of the most important river in Virginia for American shad,” said Tony Watkinson, the commission’s acting chief of habitat management.
As a compromise, the city offered not to draw water from the Mattaponi from March 15 to May 15 unless the governor declared a drought emergency. After 2020, the restriction would be lifted unless the fishing moratorium is still in place.
Watkinson expressed doubt about the compromise, saying it would only delay negative impacts to spawning shad. “Even if the shad stocks recover and the fishery is opened, future operation of the intake could still have adverse effects on anadromous species due to its location in the Mattaponi River,” he said. “As such, the commission staff recommendation regarding the raw water intake in the Mattaponi River has not changed.”
VIMS scientists earlier recommended against making any decision until a comprehensive study was completed of future water needs, saying the intake, coupled with impacts from future development and water demands within the Mattaponi basin, could add up to more stress than the shad population would withstand.
Scientists hired by the city disputed conclusions of the VIMS scientists. “The VIMS assessment, I feel, is just unsupportable,” said William Richkus, vice president of Versar, Inc., a consultant hired by Newport News to review the VIMS analysis.
The consultants said the state-of-the-art design of the intake would minimize the impact on shad eggs and larvae. And, using computer models, they predicted the lost eggs and larvae would result in only six fewer adult shad being produced in the river.
VIMS scientists said there were no reliable models to predict the impact of the lost eggs and larvae on the adult population. “These are interesting debates we can have in the academic field,” said Roger Mann, VIMS acting director for research and advisory services. Noting that a moratorium was in place for shad fishing in the Bay, he said any increased mortality in a key spawning area could hurt efforts to rebuild the population. “A moratorium means there is no wiggle room in the interim,” Mann said. “If you are going to enact a moratorium, it means no net loss is acceptable.”
VIMS scientists had not reviewed the city’s proposal to not withdraw water during a two-month period, but will offer their opinion by the May 14 meeting.
If the commission approves a compromise allowing the intake but prohibiting water withdrawals during the spring, it would not be the last word on the issue.
Commission officials said withdrawal restrictions during the spring, when flows are at their highest, meant the city would likely need to increase withdrawals during other parts of the year. That means the state Department of Environmental Quality would have to reconsider its permit for the project, issued in 1997, which set limits on withdrawals to protect the river’s ecological integrity.
During the hearing, Billy Mills, former executive director of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey River Association, showed figures indicating that nearly 30 percent of the Mattaponi’s total river flow occurred during the two months Newport News was proposing not to pump, and that flows during the summer were often too low to allow any withdrawal. “When are you going to make up the rest of the water if you are taking away one-third of the flow?” he asked.
Because flows during the rest of the year are generally low, pumping more water could increase salinity levels in the tidal area around the intake to the point where “you are really stressing the system,” Mills told the commission.
One species of concern is the sensitive joint-vetch, which the federal government lists as an threatened plant and grows along the river near the proposed intake. Any increase in salinity could affect the plant’s survival, critics of the project said.
Carl Custalow, assistant chief of the nearby Mattaponi Indian Reservation, said he had fished the river for 50 years, and the compromise was “unacceptable” because it would not adequately protect shad. “I have caught shad in the beginning of March that have spawned, depending on the severity of the winter, and I have caught spawning shad into June. It will not work.”
He also said the project would undercut efforts by the Mattaponi Reservation, which has used a hatchery to stock shad in the river for decades. “Over the years, we have lost much of our land to greed as other people have taken our resources,” Custalow said. “Now, with this reservoir, people want to take our river as well.”
On the other side, a parade of local mayors and business groups endorsed the reservoir, and warned of dire consequences—lost jobs, and even lost military bases—if the future water supply is not ensured.
Homebuilders worry that without enough water, a moratorium on new homes would eventually result.
The Newport News Waterworks now has about 400,000 customers, but predicts that number will grow to 600,000 by midcentury.
City officials characterized the project’s impacts as minimal, and would be more than offset by plans to restore 700 acres of wetlands, protect upland forests, upgrade hatcheries and improve fish passages in the area.
“The public benefits clearly outweigh the temporary impacts in state-owned bottom lands or resources,” said Randy Hildebrandt, an assistant city manager for Newport News.
The city, which has spent nearly $19 million over the past decade on engineering studies, environmental reviews and land acquisition, contends there is no viable alternative to the reservoir. “We are absolutely sure we are on the right track,” Hildebrandt said.